AD AGE 300: THE ANNUAL COUNTDOWN

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Magazines are the gifts that keep on giving.

Big years -- like 1996 -- tend to effect lower advances in the succeeding year.

But toss out the formulas in '97 for magazine publishing; it was a banner year in virtually every area of measurement.

Ad pages grew by 3.9% vs. 3.1% in '96. A 6.8% average growth in ad rates boosted gross ad revenue by 11.8% compared with 9.6% in the prior year, according to findings of the ninth annual Ad Age 300.

PUSHING $26 BILLION

These 300 magazines -- 216 consumer and 84 trade -- post an aggregate $25.81 billion in revenue (up 8.9%) -- $16.94 billion from advertising and $8.87 billion from circulation.

So far in '98, publishers are finding there's more water in the turnip: Ad pages are up 2.5%, and ad dollar growth is up 7.1%, according to Publishers Information Bureau, the monitor of most of the consumer publications listed in this report. Publishers of the Ad Age 300 jacked up ad rates an average 6.7% this year, a foretaste of the PIB findings.

The Ad Age 300's consumer magazines during '97 advanced 5.1% in pages and 8.9% in ad revenue to $21.4 billion; business publications, including trade, health and computer magazines, added 2.7% more pages than `96 and 8.9% more dollars to $4.4 billion.

Circulation, accounting for 34% of the AA 300's gross revenue, grew 3.7%, a percentage point more than in '96. Subscription revenue grew 4.1% to $6.3 billion; newsstand sales rose to $2.6 billion, up 2.7% vs. growth of only 0.4% in '96.

Growth at the newsstand was a reflection of increased rates rather than copies sold, the latter slipping to 52.6 million issues, down from 54.3 million in the prior year.

There's a scrum at the top with perennial leader TV Guide wrestling with People for the lead in total revenue.

News Corp.'s circulation maven, TV Guide -- 13,103,187 paid -- grew 4.1% to $1.12 billion in total revenue to claim the title, with circulation accounting for 64% of its total.

Time Warner's People, second publication on the AA 300 to ever top $1 billion, weighed in at $1.007 billion. Unlike TV Guide, advertising is its bread and butter, accounting for nearly 60% of total revenue.

BUILDING STRENGTH

Both are building their strength. TV Guide is buying TVSM, publisher of the monthly Cable Guide and the weekly Total TV, no doubt eying TVSM's distribution network that hooks into local cable systems.

TV Guide's weakness is in single-copy sales, which dropped 20.2% to 3.2 million for the six-month average ending December 31, 1997. The publication countered that revenue shortfall with growth in subscriptions of 10.1% to 9.9 million. TV Guide also is boosting its editorial product by adding coverage on new theatrical releases, beginning with a summer movie preview issue last month.

The People ad machine seemingly prints money as total advertising rose 12% to $588.5 million; circulation revenue, less dramatic in growth, got a big stimulus in '97 as single-copy sales grew 7.4% to 1.55 million. Part of this growth came after People's delivery shift at midyear to retailers from Monday to Friday to take advantage of heavy consumer weekend shopping.

LITTLE HEADWAY

People is making minimal headway against TV Guide in '98. According to PIB, by the end of April '98, People ad revenue hit $169.2 million, up 4.7% on a 1.9% decline in pages; TV Guide ad revenue reached $157.8 million, down 7.9%, on a 13.6% decline in pages.

Time Warner got its first double-digit revenue growth in years from No. 4 Time with total revenue of $805.9 million, up 13.8%. Time is closing in on sister publication, Sports Illustrated, No. 3 at $820.7 million.

These four publications are light years ahead of the rest of the list, stretching from No. 5 Reader's Digest at $567.9 million in revenue to No. 300 Journal of Accountancy at $18.2 million. The four also sit atop the list for newsweeklies, the leading category by revenue among the 300 at $5.05 billion, up 7.4%.

The 10 magazines in this category grew 4.8% in ad pages (23,161) and 9.1% in ad revenue ($2.95 billion); this compares with 5.5% growth in pages in '96 and an ad revenue gain of 13%.

WOMEN'S BOOKS LEAD

The 32 women's magazines, largest number of magazines in an AA 300 category, collectively outstripped all other consumer categories with 33,060 pages, up 11.4%. This category is Seven Sisters territory, where six reside; a seventh, Meredith Corp.'s Better Homes & Gardens, leads the home service & home category at $456.3 million in total revenue, up 10.4%.

Sisters residing in the women's category -- Bertelsmann's McCall's and Family Circle, Hearst Corp.'s Redbook and Good Housekeeping, Hachette Filipacchi's Woman's Day and Meredith Corp.'s Ladies Home Journal -- grew a collective 12.5% in total revenue to $1.6 billion.

Advertising accounted for $1.07 billion of the Sisters' total, up 13.9%, as pages grew 7.3% and ad rates advanced 6%. Circulation revenue grew 9.7%, a mix of 5.3% growth in subs and 17.4% movement in newsstand sales -- largely a price hike for Family Circle, LHJ and Woman's Day, since only Good Housekeeping grew among them in newsstand copies sold.

COMPUTERS STAND OUT

Among business classes, computers have no equal. The 30-member category recorded 90,398 pages for a 4.1% page growth. The leader, PC Magazine, ranked No. 9 overall, had a slight decline in pages as did five others among the top 15 in the category.

There has been a fallout in this category mimicking the rapid changes sweeping the industry; casualties, repositioning, revamping are a big part of life here.

Two vacated the AA 300: Byte suspended publication in May after CMP Media purchased it and three others from McGraw-Hill Cos. in April. CMP intends to revamp the editorial focus and rebuild the magazine.

Ziff-Davis last October folded MacUser, a publication in heavy combat with IDG's Macworld.

NATURAL MIGRATION

Ziff-Davis is repositioning Computer Life later this year to reflect "natural migration" in its coverage toward consumer electronics. The magazine will receive Equip as a new name.

CMP sold Home PC to Imagine Media. Publication of Home PC was suspended until the product can be "revamped and transitioned" with Imagine's Boot in September '98 under new name, Maximum PC. Home PC was No. 141 last year.

Men's magazines, sixth largest among consumer categories, is a hot commodity with page growth of 10.1%, propelling ad revenues upward by 17.7%. Quantum revenue growth figures continue to come from Rodale's Men's Health (19.1%) and Wenner Media's Men's Journal (34.8%), but enter list newcomer Cigar Aficionado from M. Shanken Communications with 63.6% revenue growth.

Cigar capitalizes on its role as a luxury venue for cigar lovers. "Now that the cigar industry has leveled off, we're still seeing double-digit increases because of strong growth in luxury goods," says Niki Singer, senior VP at M. Shanken.

Fifth largest consumer category, business and finance, put good numbers on the board: Ad page growth of 3.8%, ad revenue growth of 12.2%, and total revenue, up 10.3%. Business Week led the surge with total revenues of $379.8 million, up 9%; Forbes once again captured the page lead, at 4,663.

FUNDS ARE HOT

Mutual Funds proved as strong economically as its subject matter, entering '97 with a rate base of 500,000 and exiting at 783,000. Time Warner purchased it in May along with parent Institute for Econometric Research. Circulation at MF, stimulated by extensive direct mail, in '97 rose 67% to 669,462, some 94% subscriber-based. Ad pages grew 11% even with a 27.3% boost in rates.

The economy isn't a boon to all. The venerable Financial World is teetering. It has printed only twice since last summer. The partnership that owns it is seeking an infusion of capital, but no white knight has turned up.

"This business is full of pain," says Marketing Director Ray Healy. He says many readers feel betrayed, but most are supportive.

Maybe it's the reader who is the industry's gift that keeps on giving.

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